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Cary MS-1 Digital Music Server/Player Review Print E-mail
Friday, 22 October 2010
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Cary MS-1 Digital Music Server/Player Review
Testing and Conclusion

The MS-1 relies on two metadata services – FreeDB and MusicBrainz – to obtain album information. I was less than impressed with the retrieval, as many albums were tagged as “Unknown”; others, such as The Flower Kings' Stardust We Are and the previously mentioned album from The Band displayed incorrect album art. The former showed cover art from The Rod Stewart  Sessions 1971-1998 box set, the latter displayed The Band Perry's 2010 self-titled release. Across the board, it was hit or miss regarding album info and artwork. Rather obscure releases including Miller Anderson's Bright City, Quicksand's Home Is Where I Belong and Kayak's Merlin were tagged accurately including album art. Thus, I found it strange when Van Morrison's Beautiful Vision and ELO's On The Third Day were relegated to the land of unknown albums. If you want to edit and make corrections, it's necessary to first copy the album to your computer, manually tag the album and then copy it back to the MS-1. That may not sound like a big deal, but if you're suddenly faced with a dozen or more “Unknown” albums it becomes a hassle. The last thing you want to face is a sea of unlabeled albums and tracks, unless you like guessing. My advice: deal with any Unknowns immediately; tag the tunes and drop 'em back into the server and be done with it.

Managing the files on the MS-1 can done either through a Web interface or FTP. Both are accessed using the IP address from the Settings menu on the respective remote control device. Cary supplies username and password to login. Once connected to the interface, it's simple to highlight folders and files to delete any unwanted data.

Manually transferring and/or backing up music is accomplished via FTP and/or USB. Though the owner's manual includes a screenshot of the local file system and MS-1 file system, it doesn't completely explain the upload process. If, for example, you select a file (album) from the Local Site and add it to the upload queue, the music ends up in the File System Source folder. It's not a big deal, but albums in that realm don't display album art – they're treated as if untagged. The artist/album/tracks will still be identified, though. One other note regarding tagging: WAV files can't be tagged as such, so any such music by default can be accessed only via the SOURCES/FILE SYSTEM menu.

If you have a hard drive already full of music, the MS-1 can automatically sync with an external USB drive to import it. Likewise, the MS-1 can sync to backup its contents to an external drive. Cary recommends leaving the server and USB drive connected overnight to ensure complete file transfer.

The Sound

Before discussing the sound of the music, I'll mention what you'll hear from the server itself. Overall operation is very quiet. If you press your ear to the MS-1, you can hear a low level hum. I never found it loud enough to detract or distract from listening. Sometimes, it will make a sound that I can only describe as “computer-ish,” like a PC that's processing information.

The real “sound” - the sound of music – is excellent. The MS-1 performs comparably to like-priced CD players, with a natural and neutral tone that's easy to listen to for hours and hours. Former Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones released a dazzling album in 2002 called The Thunderthief. It's a smorgasbord of heavy rock, bone-crunching bass and keyboard riffs and wildly imaginative arrangements. The opening track, “Leafy Meadows,” features a monster bass groove that thumps beneath the dervish-like guitar lines of King Crimson's Robert Fripp. The MS-1 delivered the right combination of power and finesse, allowing the head-spinning music to flow with controlled fury.

Stan Getz's Jazz 'Round Midnight is a collection of the saxophonist at his mellow best, swaying with a bossa nova groove that would have Frank Sinatra snapping his fingers and Jackie Gleason pouring another martini. The last thing this music deserves is harsh treatment, abraded by digital tizz. No worries here. Getz's breath through his horn comes out during accents in tunes such as “When The Sun Comes Out” while the creamy richness of his tone never gets lost.

Rear View

I've sung the praises of HDtracks and the company's high-resolution FLAC downloads. And it's here that the MS-1 clearly separates itself from conventional compact disc players. I love being able to have 24/96 audio files at my ready, and The Kinks' Misfits is one of the sparkling offerings from HDtracks that I was able to enjoy via the MS-1. The fidelity is superb, and the MS-1 responds in kind. Other outfits, such as Bowers & Wilkins and Linn Records, are making high-res downloads available, and the MS-1 eliminates the need to burn these tracks to DVD for archiving or playback.

My “wow” moment with the MS-1 fully came when listening to Wishbone Ash's Argus. I've heard this album hundreds of time; still, I was shocked to hear the opening guitar lines of “Time Was” come through with such pristine and immediate presence. There was a sense that I was no longer listening to a recording, but Andy Powell and Ted Turner's individual guitar amps. Just when I thought I knew every nuance and accent, the doors opened for more. For me, that's what it's all about.

The MS-1 can even make MP3s sound better. I avoid these tinny and compressed files whenever possible, but as an experiment I converted a few CDs to MP3 files and handed them over to the MS-1. First up, from the depths of my disc archives, was the Norwegian folk-rock band Folque. The group's 1977 release, Vardoger, is a superb effort featuring the stirring vocals of Lisa Helljesen and the swift string work of fiddler Trond Villa. The songs may be sung in Norwegian, but the music echoes early '70's Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Heard via the MS-1, I didn't feel cheated sonically like I often do with so many lossy files. In reality, the MS-1 deserves better but it's nice knowing it can get down in the trenches and still deliver the goods.

Not to gloss over the almost unlimited music options via SHOUTcast. If you tire of listening to your own collection or just want to investigate other artists, the MS-1 makes it easy. Where else but Internet Radio will you hear “Amazing Grace” sung in Cherokee on a Celtic station? That's just one of the many delights I found, when I stumbled upon Talitha MacKenzie's stunning take on a well-worn hymn. That and hundreds of stations spanning every musical style are at your fingertips.

Final Thoughts

Can the MS-1 replace a CD player? In some ways, it can replace 2,799 single-disc CD players. A common theme among reviewers of digital music servers is that of “rediscovery.” When an overflowing music library becomes organized and accessible at the touch of a screen, such rediscovery is not only inevitable, it's justification for building and keeping a collection. Fill up the MS-1, sit back and enjoy the music. But remember to give your CD player an occasional wave. It's likely to get lonely.

System Setup

  • Cary Audio MS-1 Music Server
  • Belkin Pro Series USB 2.0 Cable
  • HRT Music Streamer II
  • Grant Fidelity A-348 Integrated Tube Amplifier
  • Snell Acoustics Type K Loudspeakers
  • Better Cables Premium Anniversary Edition Speaker Cables  
  • Better Cables Silver Serpent Anniversary Edition Interconnects 
  • Apple iPod Touch
  • A huge stack of CDs

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